In many ways West Lothian College embodies the predicament of so many institutions in the further education sector. On the one hand, it has won an award for a state-of-the-art course, tailor-made for the multi-nation al semi-conductor manufacturers that are on its doorstep. At the same time it struggles to squeeze ever more students into draughty 1960s buildings in an effort to obtain more funding.
Earlier this month its HNC in mechatronics, the combination of mechanical engineering, electronics and robotics, won a National Training Award, recognition of its place at the cutting edge of training for the semi- conductor industry.
The originality of the course, which has become a model for the industry, stems from the catalyst for its development, namely the specific need identified by the companies of Silicon Glen for a workforce trained to the requirements of the semi-conducto r industry. The need for labour was such that companies were poaching staff from each other, artificially inflating costs.
At the inception of the course in October 1993, Motorola, NEC and Seagate contacted Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise Limited (LEEL) to outline their needs and in turn LEEL contacted Peter Bates, who ran the existing mechatronics course at West Lothian College.
The new course, which took in its first students in early 1994, differentiated itself from the first one which is run for school leavers in that it focuses on the short term unemployed and those already in the industry who want to be reskilled. They can then be quickly integrated into the workforce to meet the ever growing demand for their skills. The design of the course units involved visits to companies to look at the manufacturing process and identify in action the skills required from the trained worker. "We spent about three months asking them what they wanted and we developed the units specifically to meet the needs of semi-conductor manufacture," Mr Bates says.
In order to get on the 29-week course a unique selection system operates. Applicants have to be interviewed by a team representing the partnership of LEEL, the college itself and the three multinational companies. This month 150 people are expected to apply for the 16 places available on the course, which starts in April.
"Despite the level of applicants we don't quite have the free choice of student which the numbers imply," Mr Bates says. "Getting people of the right calibre that fit in with the companies' requirements is the problem. Their standards are very stringent."
Each of the companies guarantees at least a job interview once the students have successfully completed both the course and the six-week work placement interspersed within it. In practice, Mr Bates says, the intention is that the successful trainees will be found a job.
The companies then refund LEEL the #163;3,000 it provides each student to cover tuition fees and living expenses.
This method of funding the course circumvents the vagaries of the Scottish Office's FE funding system, which has cut its grant to West Lothian College by 6 per cent in the 1997-98 financial year. The course is effectively free from the calculations of the notorious SUM count of colleges' student activity.
"The funding arrangements we were able to put in place were a significant factor in getting the course off the ground and it would have been much more difficult otherwise," according to Russell Pride, the LEEL manager with responsibility for the course.
West Lothian's award highlights the importance of the FE sector's contribution to the development of a highly skilled workforce which, according to Sam McEwan of the Scottish Electronics Forum, is a key factor in the choice of location for inward investors. "There's a lot of talk about government grants but the money that's available is the same across Europe. It's about the skills and colleges are a key element in providing that," he says.
The need for a highly skilled workforce extends to the small to medium-sized companies that supply the multinationals, a fact that has extended the popularity of West Lothian College's training expertise and willingness to meet specific demands. Mr Bates says: "This is a growth industry and they are coming to us and asking about training. The fact that we hold public classes means that we can get to them.
"We're prepared to spend time with them and they are prepared to spend time with us to get things right. Sometimes you get a company that wants a course but they don't realise that to tailor it they need to spend time with us so that we can find out what they want."
But Tony Godden, the West Lothian College principal, warns that the current funding system could jeopardise the efforts to attract the vital multinational companies by making it difficult for the college to respond to their needs.
"These companies see us as another supplier and expect us to meet the standards that they set for all their suppliers," Mr Godden states. "The bottom line is that if I don't meet the demands of the multinational companies then they can't stay competitive and there's a danger they might relocate."
He argues that allowing colleges to project ahead for growth, and bid for Scottish Office grants on that basis, would provide stability. "This would help colleges focus on the needs of their local economies rather than scratch around for short term funding by squeezing more and more students into the finite space that is available for this and other colleges of a limited size," Mr Godden declares.